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Desserts Well Up From Down Under

July 11, 1996|CHERRY RIPE and ELISE PASCOE | Ripe and Pascoe are the authors of the newly released "Australia the Beautiful Cookbook" (Collins San Francisco.)

One emu egg, so bush cooks claim, was the equivalent of a dozen chicken eggs. A bit hard to come by these days, emu eggs were once a bush standby and, it is said, turned out a light, fluffy sponge cake.

Although baking developed slowly because of a lack of equipment, it became one of Australia's great culinary traditions, particularly in the bush. It began in a campfire with the famed Australian bread, damper, baked in the raked embers.

An early settler, Louisa Meredith, wasn't impressed. She called it "a stiff dough, made of flour, water and salt, kneaded into a flat cake 2 or 3 inches thick, and from 12 to 18 broad.... When cut into, it exceeds in closeness or hard heaviness to the worst bread or pudding I have ever tasted."

There is no question that damper has improved since then, thanks to leavening agents like baking soda.

Another of Australia's culinary icons is the Anzac biscuit. As the name implies, the biscuits date from World War I, when they were baked to be shipped to troops in the trenches at Gallipoli.

They were made from coconut, rolled oats, flour, baking soda, golden syrup and drippings. Drippings, or suet, were used so the biscuits wouldn't go rancid during the long sea voyage. Drippings were a baking standby before the days of refrigeration allowed even salted butter to be kept for long.

These days, cooks Down Under are putting more of an Australian stamp on desserts. Australia's native bush fruits and berries are increasingly being used as flavorings. Their potential has been recognized only relatively recently, thanks to the efforts of people like Vic Cherikoff, whose company, Bush Tucker Supply Australia, organizes gatherers.

He has a network of more than 1,000 foragers around the country. Because bush fruits are small and found in limited quantities, usually in remote areas, they are largely suitable only for use as flavorings--in combination with other fruits to extend them, for instance--rather than as a major component of a dish.

The only Australian native that is widely available and commercially cultivated is the macadamia nut, but wattle seeds from a native acacia, once toasted, give a wonderful flavor to ice cream and are growing in popularity. They taste like roasted hazelnuts but have the texture of coffee grounds; their applications are many, with one of the most successful being their use in Anzac biscuits.

Australian chefs are also using Asian spices in desserts. They might turn up in a baked custard flavored with cardamom or in a tropical sweet fruit soup. With such an array of fruits and flavors available, the creation of desserts is limited only by the imagination of the cook.

BAKED CARDAMOM CUSTARD WITH WHISKEY, FIGS AND ALMONDS

CUSTARD

2 1/3 cups milk

1/2 cup superfine sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

FIGS

3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons water

3 1/2 tablespoons whiskey

3 tablespoons superfine sugar or to taste

1 strip of orange peel

8 dried figs

12 blanched whole almonds

CUSTARD

Rinse saucepan with cold water (this prevents milk solids from sticking, making pan easier to clean). Pour milk into pan and heat slowly until small bubbles form along edge of pan.

Meanwhile, beat together sugar, eggs and cardamom in large bowl. Slowly pour hot milk over egg mixture, beating until well blended. Pour custard into deep 1-quart buttered baking dish. Place dish in baking pan and pour hot water into pan to reach halfway up sides of dish. Bake at 325 degrees on center rack until just set, about 1 hour (custard should still be a little wobbly in center, as it will cook in its own heat after being removed from oven).

FIGS

While custard is cooking, stir together water, whiskey and sugar in saucepan and cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to boil. Add orange peel and figs and stew gently until figs are plump and tender, about 10 minutes. Add almonds. Let figs cool in syrup.

To serve, spoon warm custard into individual plates. Spoon figs, almonds and syrup alongside.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

424 calories; 139 mg sodium; 223 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 67 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 1.94 grams fiber.

RUSSIAN CREAM WITH RASPBERRIES COOKED IN THEIR OWN SYRUP

2 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

1 tablespoon cold water

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons superfine sugar

1/4 cup whipping cream

1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk

Whipping cream

1/2 pound fresh raspberries

Dissolve gelatin in bowl with 1 tablespoon cold water for 5 minutes. Set aside.

Using tip of paring knife, scrape vanilla seeds out of bean into small pan. Add 1/2 cup superfine sugar and 1/4 cup whipping cream and heat over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Add dissolved gelatin and stir until melted. Let cool. Stir buttermilk into cooled mixture.

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